English has become the world’s lingua franca, but this doesn’t mean that English speakers in places like Liverpool and Los Angeles have the last word on how the language is used. A lot of non-native speakers use the vocabulary of English in seemingly haphazard ways, at least this is the impression I’ve been getting as I look at t-shirts during my travels.
It may be that the writing I’ve seen on t-shirts in places like Hong Kong, Beijing and Istanbul carries a meaning too subtle for me to grasp. Or, it may be that the manufacturers of these t-shirts are just tossing together English words and phrases just because they are English, with no regard for their meaning. For a long time English has been considered “cool” in many parts of the world, just as Chinese characters are coming to be seen as cool in the West today, and so t-shirt manufacturers and wearers may simply be tapping into English because of the cool factor.
I first noticed this widespread use of arbitrary English phraseology when I lived in Hong Kong in 1974. One popular t-shirt design of that era carried two English phrases. On the left shoulder was “Sunshine on My Shoulder,” and in the center was emblazoned “A Safe Home is a Happy Home.”
I have no objection to either of these sentiments, but it struck me as odd to see them thrown together in the form of a dual t-shirt message.
When I lived in Qingdao in 1993 I began to suspect that some of the t-shirt designers were being ironically subversive when I saw several young men wearing shirts with silhouettes of soccer and basketball players, underwritten with the phrase “Boys and Their Balls.”
But I eventually concluded that the double entendre was entirely unintentional.
I would have thought that by now, given the many millions of Chinese who have thoroughly mastered English, that t-shirt phrases in China would begin to make sense in a way that native English speakers could appreciate. But no. It is still the case that a good deal of the English of Chinese t-shirts gives the impression that their authors are contriving meaning for their own purposes without regard for the bafflement their phrases engender in native English speakers. And the wearers of these t-shirts don’t seem concerned with their meanings either. This was certainly the case of this young man, whom I saw and photographed in the Chongqing Railroad station.
When I asked him what he meant by the message on his t-shirt, he told me he didn’t know what it said.
Here’s another one, this one bilingual:
The English says "Just You Known."
The Mandarin means something like “That which you understand”
Another one (Incomprehensible even when all the words are visible):
A few t-shirts did make a kind of recognizable sense, for example:
Though they didn’t always say things that a Westerner would expect to see on a t-shirt:
(It Is True!)
I should also mention the Muammar Gaddafi t-shirts I saw for sale, though these didn’t carry any captions:
And here are some more phrases that I saw on t-shirts in China. These I didn’t bother to photograph.
The Nature of
(The word "shiny" was inscribed in shiny letters)
Or Me (M in a large heart-shape)
(This one was worn by a pregnant woman and seemed to answer the very question it asked.)
The following was also worn by a pregnant woman and could be interpreted as a plea for more information about the baby’s father:
Maybe it was Karl who wore the following t-shirt, which would explain why he’s gone underground:
That Never Stops
These next four could have formed a conversational set:
Stop and Think
(automobile image here)
And, the most baffling of all:
Well, if English is going to be the world’s language, I guess we’ll have to get used to the world putting it to its own uses. Bricolage, anyone?